As the marathoning world turns its attention to New York City, final stop on the 2013-2014 World Marathon Majors tour, we again hear goals expressed in terms of time. Perhaps victory is to be assumed as both two-time defending champion Geoffrey Mutai and his sometimes training partner and ex-world record holder Wilson Kipsang of Kenya have expressed their desire to erase Mutai’s 2011 course record 2:05:06 this Sunday morning.
Yet with Kipsang the lone wolf still in the hunt for the World Marathon Majors $500,000 series prize – he needs to win the race outright to leap over current points’ leader Dennis Kimetto – why the clock continues to be the focus of attention is somewhat baffling. Besides, from a public relations standpoint, the average Joe and Jane wouldn’t know a 2:05 from a 737. But a win’s a win’s a win in any time.
That said, for the men of the Great Rift Valley the sport has become something of an intramural contest. So confident are they that, in some ways, even the mighty TCS New York City Marathon has been reduced to a pissing contest among playful friends. Thus, in the closed world of Kenyan running, your time is your calling card, and going home with a less than scintillating time when your compatriots have just laid down a 2:02:57 world record in Berlin and a 2:04:11 in Chicago would be declasse.
But time may be a hard ticket to ride this Sunday morning. While the forecast calls for temperatures in the ideal range, 38F to 47F (3C to 8C), the prognosticators are also calling for a brisk NNW wind nearing 20 mph (33 kph) which would mirror last year’s conditions when Geoffrey Mutai won in a mere 2:08:24 — even though the effort may well have been close to his record of 2011. But that is how critical a role conditions play in this game.
Again this year I will be fortunate to be riding aboard the lead men’s moto analyzing the race for ESPN2. Recalling last year’s ride and this year’s forecast, I’ll be packing my winter gear. How well do I remember shivering across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, then growing increasingly numb up Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn through Queens into Manhattan and then the Bronx. The wind was a constant foe all the way till 35K when the course finally turned mercifully south for a mile along museum strewn Fifth Avenue and then for the final two rolling miles through Central Park. As a practical matter the conditions added a full kilometer to the distance.
With the temperature at 48F and NW winds at 15-19 mph my teeth were chattering the entire way, and you could see the debilitating effects the conditions were having on the troops. 14 men passed halfway in 1:05:05 into a stiff breeze over the Pulaski Bridge. A 4:48 14th mile by G. Mutai then splintered the pack before a 5:11 16th mile over the Queensborough Bridge brought the remaining contenders to Thunder Alley up First Avenue in Manhattan.
Along that most rollicking stretch of road in the marathon world we’ve seen miles evaporate in as little as 4:22. But into last year’s unrelenting headwind the initial downhill mile off the bridge and onto First Avenue took 4:40, followed by modest 4:43 and 4:45s. 30-35K fell in 14:58, the fastest 5K split of the day. Now compare that with Dennis Kimetto’s 14:09 split in Berlin this September from 30-35K when the conditions were blissfully ideal.
Just as in 2011 Mutai struck for home after 20 miles in 2013 (reached in 1:38:25, 2:04 slower than in his record year). Only countryman Stanley Biwott (right) answered the break, but later succumbed after just nine minutes of pain, before dragging himself home in fifth place (2:10:11 the hard way).
Mutai’s friend and rival Wilson Kipsang is more of a gunslinger than Mutai. He took home the Olympic bronze medal in London 2012 rather than gold because he attacked early, then paid the price (Mutai wasn’t even chosen for the team).
London gold medalist Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda and fourth place finisher (and 2014 Boston champion) Meb Keflezighi will be also joining the festivities in NYC as will 2013 Boston champ Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, who looks to make up for his poor performance in Boston this spring. All three men are noted championship style racers, hoping the lack of pacesetters and the slow conditions will play to their strengths, perhaps even hoping that the two Kenyan studs go after one another and leave the step up to the victory stand open because of it.
There is always intrigue awaiting in New York City. With crowds massing the entire route except over the five bridges, the runners get swept up in the enthusiasm. Problem is, again this year, Mother Nature may be pushing in the opposite direction.